Taoist standing practice - for health, strength and athletic development
Jayne Storey explains the Taoist standing practice and how it helps to strengthen the bones and tendons, increase core stability and develop a powerful competitive spirit.
The benefits of Standing Practice (Zhan Zhuang) in martial arts circles are legendary, as each of the Shaolin and Wu Dang temple arts (T'ai Chi, Hsing Yi, Wing Chun etc.) used standing or rooting exercises as part of the mental and physical discipline required to perform kung fu at an advanced level. Founded as an individual art by Wang Xiang Zhai (1885 - 1963), Standing Practice has an even older history in Taoist and Buddhist cultures, even as far back as 500 B.C.
The 6 Benefits of Standing Practice
The First Posture
Wu Chi, also known as the posture of 'Emptiness' is the mother of all standing poses, the easiest posture to hold with the body, yet Wu Chi challenges the mind and mental state if you are not used to being still for extended periods.
Wu Chi - Structural Points
Try 3 minutes at first and gradually work up to 10, 15 or 20 minutes
The 6 Benefits Explained
The benefits of Wu Chi have been verified by Physiotherapists and Chiropractors, as essentially, this posture helps to correct muscular-skeletal misalignments and relieves pressure on the lower spine and the neck areas. Cultivating calm, aware "here and now" thought - which you will gain through the extended practice of Wu Chi - is fundamental to all 'mental game' training.
1. Physical strength and stamina
Standing aims to increase muscular strength and endurance in two main ways. Firstly, most people use more muscular effort to perform any given task than is required. By learning to use the minimum amount of effort necessary, we are in effect, increasing the efficiency with which we use our muscles. Additionally, we are learning, though standing, not to use muscle groups that are antagonistic to the task we are trying to perform - i.e. we stop fighting ourselves.
Secondly, standing excels at developing the postural muscles. These are deep fascia muscles that, as the name suggests, hold the skeleton in position. These muscles naturally have greater strength and endurance than the phasic, or movement muscles. Through training to rely more on these muscles (using body structure rather than brute force), we can begin to use the whole body in our movements, rather than one isolated part. Also, holding the posture(s) is physically tiring - it is real exercise!
We are aiming to achieve a state that the Chinese call "sung". This describes a state that is relaxed, but not to the point of floppiness that we in the West sometimes associate with complete relaxation. It is more like the softness of a bale of cotton, which is so dense that it can stop a bullet. As previously mentioned, we are aiming to use only the correct amount of muscle tension needed to perform the task, and no more.
Grounding is the result of relaxation coupled with the correct alignment of the skeleton - i.e. proper body posture. This allows the weight of the body to fall naturally to its lowest point. Without correct alignment and posture, true relaxation is not possible; an effort is required to hold the body up!
If we drop the diaphragm and expand the belly, rather than expand the rib cage and puff out the chest, this has several advantages:
5. Opening the Energy Gates of the body
As we learn to relax and let go of stiffness, the body will begin to "open up", allowing greater circulation of blood and energy ("chi"). Certain points on the body are vital, according to traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), about the exchange of energy with the environment and circulation of energy within the body. The three energy gates of the spine are of particular importance, as opening these is the first step in encouraging the circulation of energy up the spine (governing vessel) and down the middle of the front of the body (conception vessel).
This circulation is known as the small circulation or "microcosmic orbit" and connecting the two vessels is the reason for placing the tongue at the roof of the mouth. The energy gates of the spine are located at the base of the spine (tailbone gate), between the shoulder blades (dorsal gate), and where the top of the spine meets the skull (jade pillow).
Other gates include the centre of palms (lao gung), the centre of soles of feet (yong quan), trown of the head (ba hui), perineum (hui yin), and of course the "reservoir of energy" (t'an tien), located approximately 2" below the navel.
This is not intended to be an exhaustive list, as there are many energy gates all over the body. Instead, it is a simple introduction to the area where kung fu and TCM theory meet. Many people have trouble accepting the existence of energy gates, meridians and chi, and blind faith in their existence is not necessary to progress in Standing Practice. However, as your training develops, you may find that your opinions change.
6. Cultivation of intrinsic energy
Most Eastern cultures accept the existence of energy which can be absorbed through air and food and developed within the body through certain postural/movement practices. In the West, we have no such concept; so many people find thinking of chi as vitality is a helpful solution. One thing chi is not, however, is some mystical force that can be harnessed to give the practitioner superhuman powers. Martial artists (such as the Shaolin monks) who can display feats that defy the laws of reality usually are showing the results of extreme mental and physical conditioning and correct physical connections/alignment.
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About the Author
Jayne Storey is a specialist in T`ai Chi and uses this to help athletes and teams with balance, posture, body mechanics, attention control, coordination, stress management, mindfulness and also to create the right internal conditions for accessing the sporting zone/flow state.